Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Obscure Middle Eastern religious cults - part n   posted by Razib @ 10/10/2007 02:09:00 PM

Long time readers know I am interested in the existence in the Middle East of obscure, esoteric and cryptic religious groups. The knowledge of these groups is sketchy and often only surfaces due to geopolitical considerations or current events. Otherwise, why would some Americans know of the Yazidi Kurds of Iraq? These obscure groups can sometimes be quite numerous, the quasi-Shia Alevis of Turkey form about 20% of that nation's population (something most Muslims who do not live in Turkey are totally unaware of from what I can tell). I use terms like "quasi-Shia" because many of these groups are secretive about their beliefs and consultation of 10 different sources will produce 10 different answers as to their theologies, customs and provenance. The secrecy seems to have a natural origin: persecution. Islam in the Middle East is a religion which has often proscribed heterodox cults. Toleration toward religious minorities was fixed rather early on to putative "Peoples of the Book," other groups were officially not tolerated. This resulted common "work arounds." For example, the pagans of Haran were tolerated as Sabians, a group referred to in early Islamic literature (I say pagans because the people of Haran seemed to believe in a religion which originally emerged from late classical paganism as opposed to one of the "world religions"). Another common way to finesse the issue of toleration has been the slotting in of various assorted groups into the catchall category of Shia. The Alawites of Syria for example have followed this path. Most Sunni Muslims accept that Shia are Muslim, even if substandard ones, so it is a good way to ensure safety. But even "Shia" groups like the Alawites and Alevis keep a low profile, culturally conditioned from centuries pf persecution at the hands of the Ottoman Sunni orthodoxy.

Today I "stumbled" upon another weird sect, this one very numerous in a nation of interest called Iran. The group goes by various names, Yarsan/Yaresan, Kakeyi, Ahl-e Haqq or Ahl-i Haqq. The Nizari Ismaili community published a description of the group in the 1940s, in part because people were confusing them with the Nizaris. I'm not going to summarize their beliefs except to say that it has some core overlaps with Shia ideas, but "extends" them rather far and introduces ideas like reincarnation which don't seem conventional in Islam. Looking on google books & scholar I can say this: 1) adherents are disproportionately Kurdish, but it is multi-ethnic and accepts converts 2) it is grudgingly accepted as Shia within Iran but this seems to be a pragmatic consideration because 3) estimates of its numbers range from tens of thousands to 5 million, but somewhere around the magnitude of 1 million seems about right. Most of these within Iran, so the group is probably a few percent of the nation's population.